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“Big Labor”–Another Example of Right-Wing Terminology

[ 34 ] February 26, 2013 |

Given its namesake, Mother Jones is not exactly great on labor issues. I want to point out this problematic article by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella about AFSCME’s opposition to closing an Illinois prison. The problem isn’t that they are wrong to criticize AFSCME. Although it is the primary job of a union to fight for their members’ jobs, supporting terrible social and political policies is hardly the way to do it, not to mention hardly the way to build alliances with other groups to fight for a better future.

No, the problem is tainting all of labor with the charge that, “It was perhaps the most visible and contentious example of a phenomenon seen, in one form or another, around the country: otherwise progressive labor unions furthering America’s addiction to mass incarceration. In terms of prisoners rights in general, and solitary confinement in particular, unions are seen as a major obstacle to more-humane conditions.”

The authors provide absolutely no evidence for this statement. I’m not even saying it isn’t true. But they need to show their work in order to make such broad-based claims. The authors talk about SEIU and the Teamsters but offer no concrete examples. They talk about the AFGE’s support for solitary confinement, but that’s different than opposing all prison reforms. Are “progressive labor unions furthering America’s addiction to mass incarceration?” I’m pretty skeptical of that claim.

In addition, it is completely unfair to dismiss union’s claims of security for prison guards. I know that prison guards often do bad things. I know the system has a lot of corruption and that guards can abuse their power. I also know that profit margins for privatized prisons and underfunding for public prisons means that guards can be overwhelmed. Solitary confinement is bad public policy. But from the perspective of the prison guards, I don’t doubt that they are genuinely very scared when dealing with some of these prisoners. Part of a union’s job is protecting its members. We have to respect that position.

Again, none of this is to say that AFSCME is right or that any of the union stances are per se correct on this issue. I am saying that this is poor labor reporting.

The entire term “Big Labor” is terrible. It assumes that all labor unions are the same, which is absolutely not true. It assumes that the AFL-CIO leadership sets all policies and acts as a monolith, with a white guy in a big cushy office telling everyone what to do. This is most definitely not how the AFL-CIO operates. It also repeats right-wing talking points about organized labor and obscures both the movement’s complexity and reinforces stereotypes.

And lo and behold, who should pick up on the story but a writer for Reason, an already anti-labor publication.

Comments (34)

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  1. UberMitch says:

    Well, here’s a info-thing someone put together cataloging terrible political positions taken by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, but also pointing out to the CCOPA’s credit that new leadership in 2002 seems to have turned the organization less-terrible. So good! I was under the impression that the CCOPA was still as terrible as can be.

    • Richard says:

      Less terrible than before but still a long way from good. In previous years, it had vigorously supported three strikes legislation and opposed any attempts to modify the provisions. Last November, Prop 36 sought to modify the three strikes law and CCOPA took no position (it passed)

  2. S_noe says:

    Somebody’s gonna call foul on the “namesake” thing – the namesake is the named-after thing/person, not the name-originator – so I’ll take the bullet, because I think namesake works much better the other way around, and we should all adopt the word and use it thusly.
    So talk about unions or something else!

    • Jo says:

      It’s both, so I guess everyone dodged that bullet. From the OED: “A person who or thing which has the same name as another.”

      • UserGoogol says:

        The latter definition seems “controversial” and dictionaries disagree on the issue based on how prescriptivist they’re inclined to be. But I firmly throw my hat in on the “it can be either way” side.

        • S_noe says:

          Yeah, until we get a new awesome word that means, precisely, “the thing I’m named after,” we should keep using “namesake” like that, because we need such a word.

          It ain’t an uncontroversial usage. That’s why I wanted to get a descriptivist word in first.

          But I guess I wasn’t descriptivist enough. Story of my life. :(

  3. Shakezula says:

    otherwise progressive labor unions furthering America’s addiction to mass incarceration.

    Unions are behind the War on Drugs? Wow, I learn something new every day.

    • Murc says:

      There’s a kernel of truth there.

      Police unions tend to love them some drug war. But police and fire unions tend to not display a whole lot of solidarity with other labor unions, for reasons one hopes is obvious.

      • Fake Irishman says:

        Just ask all the protestors who got pepper sprayed by state troopers while protesting Michigan’s new Right-to-Freeload law, which of course, doesn’t apply to firefighters and police officers.

      • Shakezula says:

        Perhaps. But because the weather is crap & I’m feeling fractious:
        1. Would you typically classify police unions as “otherwise progressive”? Me, I don’t know. I know some rampantly liberal polis but I would say the union is not.
        2. Prison guards = Beat cop? I didn’t think so, perhaps I’m wrong.
        3. Blaming prison officers for the war on drugs seems … a lot like blaming morticians when the cemetery gets overcrowded.

        • Brandon says:

          only if the morticians union is regularly pro-death-policies

          • BarrY says:

            The analogy would be if the mortician’s union pushed mass executions.

            • chris says:

              They don’t need to, they just have to be patient.

              Without pro-incarceration policies most people would never be imprisoned AT ALL in their entire lives. That puts them in a very different position from morticians (or doctors, or farmers, or supermarkets, etc.)

  4. Joseph Slater says:

    Well-said, Erik.

  5. Dana Houle says:

    1. If someone is going to use the term “big labor,” they should be prepared to offer their definition, including examples of both big and small labor.
    2. At about 8% of the overall workforce, it’s not like labor overall is particularly big anymore.

    • Richard says:

      I agree that the term “big labor” is not particularly helpful but the California Correctional Prison Guards Union has 31,000 members, its dues are high ($80 per month) and because of the monies it has to contribute, especially in local elections, it is one of the major players in California elections and in the California legislature.

        • Richard says:

          I agree but it is still big bucks and its used for a very limited agenda. The chart you point to is about national PAC contributions, not about California, and not broken down by how the money is used or by issues. For the most part, corporate money doesn’t weigh in on prison reform issues (except when it comes to private prisons) Ask anybody in California politics – CCOPA is a very powerful force. You are not going to pass prison reform bills without considerable input from CCOPA.

  6. Anon21 says:

    Are “progressive labor unions furthering America’s addiction to mass incarceration?” I’m pretty skeptical of that claim.

    It seems like “progressive” is doing a lot of work there. I’ll just say that I’ve had occasion to hear speeches/converse with a high-up state correctional administrator in a northeastern state on several occasions. He experiences the prison guards’ union in that state as a pretty serious constraint on his ability to go to state legislators and tell them that a particular tough-on-crime policy is creating more problems than it’s solving, or that the correctional system lacks the mental-health resources to deal with certain offenders. The union does advocate more prison construction and harsher sentencing laws, for the obvious reason that it means more union members.

  7. Marek says:

    Just want to put my 2 cents in as someone who represents prison guard unions (among other unions). It is an extremely dangerous job (the guards’ job, not mine). Also, prisons are run as paramilitary organizations, like police departments, so there are tons of ticky-tack work rules that individually may make some sense, but as a whole make prison a hard place to work.

    • Richard says:

      I agree. But prison guard unions, at least in California, have worked to support laws like three strikes which have absolutely nothing to do with guard safety

      • chris says:

        In California, they probably make guard safety *worse*, because they make overcrowding more severe and increase the prisoner:guard ratio. It’s not like California is going to start adequately funding its prisons — although that might be a *good* place for the guard union to deploy what influence it has — because of the insane anti-tax rules written into its constitution.

    • Icarus Wright says:

      My 2 cents as a former inmate: I spent close to 3 weeks in the county jail back in the mid-late 1990s (3rd DUI offense and no, it wasn’t a felony but perhaps it should have been).

      Obviously, this was jail, not prison. There’s a difference between housing felons and misdemeanor miscreants. So (speaking to my experience) it was basically like 3 weeks of detention. The guards were generally ok, occasionally denigrating. And why not? The whole process of incarceration is largely about the psychology of disempowerment.

      After release, I had certain behavioral “inmate” tics but was able to unlearn them fairly quickly.

      I had zero problem with the guards, even the ones who were dicks. However, since then I have noticed that all law enforcement (police) seem to be far more quasi-military. Even so, last summer I flagged down a police car to help a Korean immigrant with a flat tire problem. I have no fear of the man, but then again I’m white.

      All that said, I find your perspective fascinating.

  8. Witt says:

    It’s been a few years since I read it, but Ted Conover’s book Newjack (about being an undercover prison guard at Sing Sing) did a terrific job of evoking the visceral fear and ongoing low-grade terror of working as a corrections officer (as they prefer to be called).

  9. Bruce Vail says:

    I agree that Ridgeway/Casella went off the rails on this story. Mother Jones editors dishonored the magazine’s namesake by printing it.

    The notion that AFSCME is in any way contributing to the national problem of excessive incarceration is just laughable. Mother Jones may just as well have blame the United Steel Workers for global warming because it works to protect the livelihoods of unionized oil refinery workers in Pennsylvania.

  10. Dilan Esper says:

    In addition, it is completely unfair to dismiss union’s claims of security for prison guards. I know that prison guards often do bad things. I know the system has a lot of corruption and that guards can abuse their power. I also know that profit margins for privatized prisons and underfunding for public prisons means that guards can be overwhelmed. Solitary confinement is bad public policy. But from the perspective of the prison guards, I don’t doubt that they are genuinely very scared when dealing with some of these prisoners. Part of a union’s job is protecting its members. We have to respect that position.

    To me, this gets at exactly the problem with blindly supporting unions qua unions rather than looking at the merits of what they are standing for.

    It happens that a lot of the interests of groups of workers happen to be very socially desirable things, like higher wages and better working conditions and support for liberal causes.

    But there’s nothing intrinsic about unions that means that everything they support will be good, and there ARE situations where the interests of groups of workers will be socially undesirable. Prison guard unions are one example of this. Others include things like Hollywood guilds (which enforce exclusionary pratctices). And more controversial examples can include teachers unions (I don’t know enough about education policy to know what the best policies are, but there’s no reason they are going to exactly align with the self-interest of teachers) and industrial unions threatened by technology (such as the linotype operators in the newspaper industry which killed lots of urban newspapers by insisting on preserving jobs that had been rendered unnecessary by new printing technologies).

    Unions are an instrument. Usually for good, but sometimes for bad. And “supporting” the labor movement is fine on procedural grounds (i.e., card check, etc.), but in terms of any particular union’s demands, just because it’s being advocated by a union doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

    • Brandon says:

      You can blindly support unions qua unions in the same way that you can blindly support government by consent of the governed without approving of every specific detail of every possible iteration.

      • Dilan Esper says:

        I don’t think that’s what is going on, though. There’s a lot of reluctance in Loomis’ writing to just come out and say that meeting the prison guards’ demands is bad for society. But it’s true! I live in California and I can tell you the prison guards union is the cause of plenty of my state’s problems.

        And that’s actually the easy case. When you get more controversial stuff like teachers unions and the demands of public sector workers for pensions that pay off big in the out years, it becomes impossible to discuss these issues because the moment you say that a union’s position is a bad idea you become anti-union even though you fully support the union’s right to advocate that position.

        • Brandon says:

          Teachers unions are only controversial if you’re an anti-union moron.

          This, again, does not mean blindly supporting each and every position a union takes (see Loomis’ post on the Keystone today).

  11. [...] Last week I talked about that awful Mother Jones article blaming AFSCME for keeping prisons open in …. I focused on the problems with the terminology. AFSCME strikes back against the article’s inaccuracies about its own position. [...]

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